Question: What do you get when you cross a need to survive with the want to be a good person?
Answer: You get Papers, Please, the “dystopian document thriller” made by Lucas Pope back in 2013.
Papers, Please can be easily placed amongst the ranks of games like Harvest Moon, Animal Crossing, and Euro Truck Simulator in that it’s one of those games that really doesn’t sound that interesting. You play as an immigration officer working on the border of the fictional country Arstotzka and each in-game day you have to decide who is allowed into your country and who gets the boot. The more people you let in, the more money you get paid. The more money you have, the better you can care for your family. It all sounds fairly boring and, in truth, it kind of is for a while.
And then the game starts asking you to make some rough choices.
See, Arstotzka isn’t really the most stable country so between catching criminals trying to escape prosecution and dealing with revolutionaries trying to recruit you, it can be hard to figure out what the correct move is. Often, the actions that are meant to keep you safest such as following border rules or being honest with law officials nets you far less money than acting against the rules will. Thus, the game makes it profitable for you to break the rules. However, break too many and the government will notice your actions and act against you, sometimes resulting in game over. Thus, this game forces a player to decide where safety actually lies, if it even exists at all, in order to negotiate their family’s lives.
However, this game doesn’t just challenge the player in terms of how far they’ll go to protect the ones closest to them. It also calls into question how one might act when others lives are on the line. At one point, for example, one of the border guards will offer the player a deal: If they start detaining people who have any kind of discrepancy from having a weapon on them to having their name spelled incorrectly on their passport, the guard will pay the player money for each person. More money means you can help your family but is it worth it to send people who may be the victims of basic clerical errors to prison? That, too, is up to individual players to decide.
All the while, the game continually adds more and more variables to letting people through the checkpoint. By the end of the story, players will be sifting through a screen full of documents and dozens of rules for the tiniest of errors, all while the same clock from the first day at the job keeps ticking down. This twitchy, anxiety-inducing gameplay puts a player on edge and heightens ones nerves when situations turn sour. From bombings to threats, this game actively tries to keep you on your toes and in constant fear.
For most video games, morality exists as either a spectrum or a line. You either play along a very specific path and earn “good” or “bad” points along the way or you play a specific path and get force-fed whatever morals the game deems fit. Papers, Please doesn’t do either of these. Instead, it presents a realistic and difficult series of choices that may or may not work out for a player. The game itself isn’t structured to judge the player and, in fact, any consequences a player faces may seem entirely irrelevant. It’s a unique kind of morality at play here where the game isn’t necessarily trying to teach you what side you ought to fall on. Rather, it allows you to make those choices for yourself and let you decide whether or not those consequences were worth it. For such a simple game, I think that’s some pretty intriguing game design.